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Niran Babalola: “If there were clearer rules about what could and could not be done, it would be much easier to innovate.” With Tyler Gallagher

If there were clearer rules about what could and could not be done, it would be much easier to innovate. While we do appreciate the progress that’s been made in the past couple of years in regards to regulation, since there’s been enough clarity for us to move forward with Panvala, there’s still more experimentation […]

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If there were clearer rules about what could and could not be done, it would be much easier to innovate. While we do appreciate the progress that’s been made in the past couple of years in regards to regulation, since there’s been enough clarity for us to move forward with Panvala, there’s still more experimentation and further regulatory development that needs to occur to stabilize the industry.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Niran Babalola, Founder of Panvala.


Thank you so much for doing this with us, Niran! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”?

I am the founder of a blockchain project called Panvala. Panvala is a decentralized autonomous organization (DAO) that sustainably grants funds to projects that are working to strengthen the Ethereum blockchain infrastructure.

Establishing a world in which innovative, creative people and their ideas can flourish without gatekeepers has been important to me since I was a child. Over 38 years ago, my family came to the United States from Nigeria in search of a better life. Although I was born in Austin, Texas, as I grew up, I straddled two cultures: the life around me in the States and my family’s roots in Africa. From that perspective, I could see the dramatic differences between how my life played out with the stable, effective institutions America has to offer, and the path that could’ve been had we stayed in Nigeria, a place with a culture I hold dear, but without institutions that can actually serve its people.

My love for technology blossomed from the start of my career. I grew to understand the power it held for creating more equal pathways to success and opportunity across society. I began my career in software engineering roles at news organizations like the non-profit Texas Tribune.

My first interactions with blockchain technology -as an open source contributor to Augur, one of the first decentralized applications built on Ethereum- allowed me to understand what this technology is actually capable of changing. If we can opt in to new rules to coordinate our cooperation, I believe blockchain technology can usher in an era of dramatic increases in our common wealth, not just our wealth as individuals. The moment I found an entry into the blockchain tech world, I took it, joining the Ethereum-focused technology studio ConsenSys, where I contributed to projects including Gnosis, Benefactory, and ConsenSys Diligence before founding Panvala in 2018.

Can you tell us the story of how you got first involved with the Regtech or Crypto markets?

I first heard about Bitcoin in 2013 and initially assumed that this “digital gold” was really just fools’ gold for nerds: why would anyone believe that you could create money from nothing? However, within a few months, I found myself falling deeper down the rabbit hole of information, devouring everything I could find about blockchains, the technology behind Bitcoin. I was blown away by how the creation of Bitcoin opened up a wide intellectual frontier of new ideas to explore.

Although it started with Bitcoin, the larger concept of blockchain tech brought me to the Ethereum project and ecosystem. Again, while Ethereum seemed interesting, I couldn’t see how putting a programming language in your money would make it any more valuable. It was when other teams started building interesting applications on top of it that the promise became clear. The Augur project started building decentralized prediction markets on top of Ethereum to allow the world to create economic forecasts for any event without being shut down by regulators. I started contributing to Augur as a volunteer because I believed in that idea, but not yet in Ethereum itself.

It was during my time with Augur that I learned the fundamentals of writing the programmable
“rules” that control Ethereum smart contracts. These rules create incentive systems that replace centralized intermediaries with markets of service providers. It just clicked: there’s probably all sorts of games you could create that would help society operate in a more effective way, without reliance on intermediaries unable to fully understand our individual needs.

This epiphany changed my entire career trajectory. I immediately left my cookie cutter full-time job in search of something bigger within this new, experimental space. In 2015, I came across ConsenSys, an entity dedicated to using blockchain to create a new operating system for our society, our economy, and our politics. I knew that these were my people, and I’ve been working with various ConsenSys projects ever since.

Can you share 5 things that should be done to help stabilize the Crypto Economy?

Providing Clear Use Cases for the General Public

Right now, much of the industry instability is due to a lack of approachable blockchain technology use cases that the general public can comprehend. The majority of crypto-users purchase for the means of either holding or speculating its value, which leads to loss, uncertainty, and unfulfilled bets. When broader audiences start to realize how meaningful blockchain technology is, what their crypto can be used for outside of the investment or speculative usage, that’s when we’re going to see some of the instability fade away.

Efficiently Fund Public Goods

Unfortunately, a lot of individuals are building systems to produce economic returns. Because blockchain, and specifically Ethereum, depend on public infrastructure, we need to build and fund infrastructure as public goods, not as speculative projects that produce constant market volatility.

That is what we are trying to do with Panvala; we connect with corporate sponsors and individuals to steadily fund the work that Ethereum relies on. We hope that creating this sustainable model of project funding successfully further decreases the instability we currently see, by allowing projects to thrive without the constant need to find funding.

Regulatory Clarity

The regulatory landscape for innovating with blockchain technology is ever-moving and evolving. At a time when people should be pouring their energy into experimenting, they are forced to remain unnaturally conservative to protect themselves from potential regulatory directives.

If there were clearer rules about what could and could not be done, it would be much easier to innovate. While we do appreciate the progress that’s been made in the past couple of years in regards to regulation, since there’s been enough clarity for us to move forward with Panvala, there’s still more experimentation and further regulatory development that needs to occur to stabilize the industry.

Educate the Everyday Consumer

Although blockchain education for the broader public has improved, many products remain too complex, too niche, or too abstruse to explain to everyday consumers. This isn’t a new problem. Most industry professionals are aware that we’re building things that aren’t really usable by the general public. Much of the industry speculation comes from this very problem: We’re betting that one day mass adoption will take hold, giving access to anyone, no matter their technological level of expertise.

If we work to create an education pathway, we can graduate from an ecosystem of bets for success to an ecosystem of everyday use. Once we reach this level of understanding, we can create products and solutions that we can provide to users and say, “Hey, do you want to use this?,” and receive direct feedback on what works and what doesn’t. Right now, there is not a large enough audience of real users familiar with the technology to test our hypotheses in a quick, efficient manner.

Give it Time

It’s still very early in the history of this technology. Stability will come with time, but it’s still too soon to predict the most direct pathway to widespread usage. No matter how much work people put in to battle test new technology, society as a whole still needs to adjust to the changes that come with any new innovations.

We’ve seen tech bubbles in the past and we shouldn’t expect that pattern of booms and busts to subside any time soon. There are grand visions of what the future looks like when this technology takes hold, but it won’t happen tomorrow, and it won’t happen next year.

In your experience, what are the top strategies that crypto firms should be considering in order to have a competitive edge?

I’m biased, but I think most of the competitive edge comes from time spent in this industry thinking about the problems that are there to be solved. Over the past six years that I’ve been paying attention to this technology, I’ve seen so many different people try so many different things, and through watching this evolution of trial and error, you learn what will and will not work.

In addition to paying attention to the track record of these technologies, companies should consciously separate themselves from the hype. Too often, the claims used to create awareness or buy-in for a project or ecosystem are disconnected from reality. As much as we would like to think we are independent thinkers, once a concept takes hold of a large enough group of people, it’s easy enough for a person to get caught up in a “groupthink.” You can start an entire company based on something that was really just groupthink. If you try to critically evaluate each new theory of how this will play out, then you can focus on actual potential rather than a match to potential.

Additionally, and this seems like a simple concept, but one of the biggest competitive edges can be in hiring the best people. Since talent in this industry is so scarce, it can be hard to use the normal strategies to hire the best people. The progress we’ve been able to make at Panvala in particular is due to us focusing on hiring the right people, and we have been really lucky in this area. The people we have hired have a deep understanding of how the systems work, which has allowed us to build complicated things that have not been built before.

Can you share a story of a time when things went south for you? What kept you going and helped you to overcome those times?

Things went south around fall of 2018, when the cryptocurrency markets were starting to hit rock bottom, and stayed there for awhile. A lot of my work at the time was funded in cryptocurrencies that had a certain value, and when the value dropped, there was less funding to go around. Launching a new token comes with its fair share of uncertainties, launching during a market depression amplified that risk and forced us to operate with fewer resources.

My belief in blockchain technology is what kept me going during those tough times. I knew that despite the nature of the volatile industry, its ups and downs, it would be worth it in the long run. Although the point of business is to make money, the point of life is to make things better while you’re here, and realizing the value and the impact that blockchain technology can have on people, not just their bank accounts, is what kept me going. The idea that we can leave this place better than we found it is what helped me overcome.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Winston Churchill said, “Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time…”

This quote resonates with me because although blockchain has the ability to rework and improve the infrastructure of many different business systems, we shouldn’t disrupt for disruption’s sake. History is littered with examples of visionaries with “great ideas” that they imposed on people in the name of progress, but resulted in serious setbacks instead. We want to add value to society, and unnecessary disruption doesn’t do that. Our team at Panvala works to innovate and build new models, while keeping in mind and respecting previous systems. We believe in building systems on the blockchain, not breaking them.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Readers can follow me on Twitter. My Twitter handle is @niran. Additionally, to learn more about Panvala and the Ethereum focused project it funds, readers can follow @PanvalaHQ on Twitter and on Medium at https://medium.com/@Panvala.

Thank you for all of these great insights!

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